Béla Fleck has been called the premier banjo player in the world and has virtually reinvented the image and the sound of the banjo through a remarkable performing and recording career that has taken him right across the musical spectrum. At home equally in the great temples of classical music and in the concert aarenas of the world, he has won eleven Grammy Awards and been nominated in more different categories than anyone in Grammy history.
How were you introduced to the banjo?
I first heard the banjo when I was rather young, perhaps 4 or 5 years of age. It was on a silly television program called the Beverly Hillbillies. But the introduction music was gripping to me. I later found out that this was Earl Scruggs playing the banjo. He started the three-finger style that I have built my playing on, and hearing him has had a powerful effect on many people. After hearing him play once, thousands have taken up the banjo. My grandfather bought me my first banjo, and although I started late, at 18 years of age, I applied myself diligently. By the time I was out of high school three years later, I was a professional musician.
You’ve been widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most innovative and technically proficient banjo players. You’ve won several Grammys for your albums (including one with Edgar Meyer), and have been nominated in more categories than any other musician (country, jazz, pop, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken word, composition and arranging). Are you working on a new album at the moment?
Yes, I am completing a new album in which I composed extended pieces for classical musicians to perform. One piece is a concerto for symphony orchestra and banjo, the other is a piece for string quartet and banjo. The two pieces will come out next summer on a major classical label. It’s pretty special to be able to do this on such a high level, and it’s pretty much unheard of for banjoists to play or write symphonies and quartets, much less record for top classical labels. So I am excited!
Your album Perpetual Motion sounds particularly interesting, partnering as you did with a host of other celebrities in the classical music world such as Joshua Bell, John Williams, and Evelyn Glennie. How did the idea for this album come into being?
Actually this is the one other time that I dabbled in the classical music world. The album featured music by the great composers, brought over to the banjo. Edgar (Meyer) played a large role in co-producing, and he helped me avoid many of the pitfalls. He also introduced me to some of the top-level classical musicians. Surprisingly, this album did quite well, selling a lot, and winning two Grammies. Also very lucky for a banjo player!
Most of all, I was thrilled to play and learn from the music and the musicians.
The album came about because I was signed to Sony with the Flecktones, and I had a deal where I could record records for various branches of the label. My group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones recorded on Sony ‘pop’ and Columbia ‘jazz’, and I did several projects on Sony Classical – two of them with Edgar Meyer.
You seem equally at home in so many different music genres and styles. Any favorites among them?
Well, the bluegrass world is my original home, jazz is my second love. Moving on – I fell the hardest for classical music in the 1980s after hearing and getting to know Edgar Meyer, and more recently I delved into African music, travelling to Mali, the Gambia, Uganda and Tanzania to collaborate and learn from the master musicians there. I made a film and two CDs on that trip. These all go under the title ‘Throw Down Your Heart’.
Here in Goa, I am fortunate to interact with some of the greatest musicians in Indiian classical music. Zakir Hussain has been a hero of mine for many decades, and Rakesh Chaurasia is a new friend and a new inspiration. This is an amazing world, and one could spend their whole life learning from these great Indian musicians. I will incorporate what I can, and hopefully be changed by it and enriched.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 16 February 2013)